Public space in cities is often underutilized. Through their BenchesCollective initiative, Amsterdam-based urban design office We The City is hoping to put an end to this by turning the streets into the largest outdoor living room in the world.
Little benches outside of people’s doors are a familiar side throughout all of Amsterdam. However, they rarely enjoy proper usage. The BenchesCollective initiative has now called upon locals to open up their benches to neighbors, residents and passers-by several times a year. In these public open-air cafés, people can gather and possibly get in touch with those they have been living door-to-door with for years.
Everybody who owns a bench is invited to ‘open’ it by listing it on a map on the BenchesCollective website, and create social activities around it for friends, neighbors or strangers. It’s up to the participants what they offer.
“There can be food and drinks, or a salsa course, a marble competition, even making chalk artwork,” says Jesse Jorg, founder of We The City. “It doesn’t really matter.”
According to Jesse, by taking ownership of public space, citizens are able to create new possibilities for interactions, relationships, and community action.
“In the end, this allows everybody to feel at home in their neighborhood before they enter their own house. It has to do with happiness. People are happy knowing that they share a common space with others.”
Inspiration from Bangkok
Jesse was inspired to start BenchesCollective after living abroad in Bangkok: “Bangkok is a very busy place. When you step outside, you feel the dynamics and energy of the people and everything around you.”
Upon returning to Amsterdam, Jesse wanted to replicate this feeling of communal shared space. “What we liked about Bangkok is it was really a mixture of people in public space.”
Implementing a project like this in Amsterdam seemed like a no-brainer. Amsterdam’s diverse housing market is already creating a colorful blend of residents, including students, refugees, and expats.
“Although it’s very cool that we have this diverse situation going on, there is a tendency to just live next to each other and not engage in interactions,” Jesse points out. “The pavement is a space that everybody uses, so why not use this specific type of public space as a shared living room?”
750 Benches in ten countries planned
But what if you don’t have a bench? “You can put out some chairs or even use a bench in the park,” says Jesse and hints at the philosophy behind BenchesCollective: It sets a direction for people and they can choose what they want to do with it.
This gives people the opportunity to create their own experience for their neighbors through the act of placemaking. Neighborhood initiatives have also resulted from open benches: “BenchesCollective acts as a catalyst for people to share their ideas and create social cohesion,” adds Jesse.
With 750 benches opening up worldwide in ten different countries, Jesse is hoping to expand this initiative further to gain more participation outside of the Netherlands.
The idea of BenchesCollective is very attractive to international communities, but every city is different in terms of community and public space, as Jesse explains. “Some cities are very far from the idea of public space being shaped by inhabitants.”
Meet your neighbors
Jesse hopes that the adoption of BenchesCollective by other cities will help break down the barriers surrounding public space and community through a shared experience. By opening themselves to conversation, cohesion is created within neighborhoods. “You don’t know how awesome your neighbors are unless you get to know them.”
BenchesCollective has successfully demonstrated how a greater understanding of the value of public space – and the power of bringing people together – can transform cities into thriving communities. September 18th was the closing event for Benches Season 2016.
With 450 participating bench locations, this may have been the most successful Benches Day to date. Stay tuned for Benches Season 2017. Whether you are based in Amsterdam, or located internationally, you can register your bench on the BenchesCollective website or find a bench near you to participate in 2017!